Motor City's greatest hits, from Detroit-style pizza to the Coney dog.
I was born in Detroit, but I am not “from” Detroit. I did not even grow up in Detroit, in fact; I was raised in Los Angeles for 12 years after living all over the country, and have spent over ten years in New York. But I am a born Detroiter. Right there, on my passport and on my birth certificate, it will read until the day I die: “Detroit, Michigan."
My dad immigrated to Detroit from Seoul, Korea to attend graduate school at Wayne State University. I was born at Grace Hospital, later Harper Grace, and now Harper-Hutzel, part of the Detroit Medical Center. I have no recollection of living there, since we left for Long Island when I was three. I didn't return for over 25 years.
Detroit has since fallen from its great car-industry heyday (one of the reasons my dad moved us away), but is now experiencing a bit of a cultural resurgence.
I first went back in the summer of 2013 with my then boyfriend (now husband). Nick is a full-blooded Detroiter. His entire familial lineage hails from Detroit. Detroit is so ingrained in their blood that there’s even a prominent car company named after them. Now I return at least twice a year, usually for family functions or to drive up to Lake Huron for a summer weekend. When we’re there, we have a checklist of foods to eat as quickly as possible in the short few days of our visit.
Though I may not be a Detroit local, I'm a perma-tourist—and a die-hard fan of its greatest hits. This guide is not a list of undiscovered spots—it's a list of gems—with the idea in mind that everyone should experience the absolute best of, in my opinion, one of the most delicious cities in America.
Honestly, we’re here for the Detroit-style pizza (more on that later), but it’s not a proper Detroit visit if we don’t get to watch a waiter bark “Opa!” after lighting a cast-iron plate of cheese on fire. Saganaki features kasseri cheese, a Greek sheep’s milk cheese similar to halloumi. It’s melted in a small pan until blistering hot and, when it arrives at your table, doused in Metaxa, lit aflame, and then extinguished with a squeeze of lemon. I always snatch the first forkful so I can get that sweet, sweet cheese pull. The resulting melted cheese is slightly tangy and pleasantly squeaky, best laden atop the plainest of white bread.
If the dulcet tones of the heralding angels of Detroit-style pizza have not yet reached your ears, then oh, here they are: A glorious confluence of cheese and crust, Detroit-style pizza is a square-shaped pie featuring a thicker, Sicilian-style crust and cheese that's spread from end to end, so that it crisps up along the edge creating a kind of cheese crust, almost like a frico. I live for that cheese crust. Buddy’s is the original Detroit-style pizza joint, having since expanded into a state-wide chain, and also the basis of both the popular Emmy Squared restaurants (owner Emily Hyland had frozen Buddy’s shipped to Brooklyn for taste testing and reverse engineering purposes) as well as Lions and Tigers and Squares (by the owners of Artichoke Pizza). If we have a free moment driving down Mack Avenue, we’ll swing by Pointe Plaza where they have $2 slices of Buddy’s Pizza ready under some heat lamps, and chow them down as fast as possible before the hot cheese burns our tongues.
Coney dogs are the other signature Detroit food. In a Pat’s vs Geno’s–style face-off, on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Lafayette Boulevard stand Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island, two chili hot dog joints opened by rival brothers in the early 1900s. Regardless of the origin of the Coney dog, taste-wise and ambiance-wise I am firmly in Lafayette’s corner today. Nick and I will saddle up to a cozy counter spot, and I'll want at least two for myself, plus some fries. Minutes later the waiter will roll up, outstretched arms deep in Coney dogs, balancing almost 20 plates from his hands to his shoulders. The snappy hot dogs are topped in a loose, almost soupy chili (beef hearts are a secret ingredient, pumping up the umamied, meaty flavor), spicy yellow mustard that's just slightly eye-watering in its kick, and raw diced onions to cut through the fattiness. Nothing is sadder for me than that last bite, during which I’m already missing the first.
I’ve had three eye-opening experiences when partaking in the loose and fast style of drinking in Detroit's bars. The first was my first “shotbeer” in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philly: that one-two punch of a whiskey shot chased by an ice-cold beer. The second was the "pickleback" at Bushwick Country Club in Brooklyn: a whiskey shot followed by a lip-puckering pickle brine shot that cuts straight through the lingering alcohol flavor. And here, at Johnny Noodle King, a "brothback": a shot of Johnny Smoking Gun whiskey (specially made for the restaurant) served with a shot of shoyu broth, the same one featured in their signature ramen. I love this for the same reason I love Korean naengmyun (cold buckwheat noodles) restaurants, where they serve piping hot cups of their beef broth to whet your appetite and highlight the many hours or days of work that have gone into something as simple as a soup. The brothback is really the perfect shot chaser—neutral yet aromatic, the warmth easing the fire in my throat.
Walking into a National Coney Island—a southeastern Michigan chain of diners specializing in Coney dogs, Sanders hot fudge sundaes, and all-day breakfasts—transports me to what it must have been like being a high school kid growing up in Grosse Pointe (aka my husband Nick). Hanis are the epitome of this feeling. Chicken tenders wrapped in pita, topped with Swiss and American cheese, as well as lettuce, tomato, and "special sauce." It’s one of those things I never order because I’ll be like “Ew, gross,” and then invariably Nick will get mad at me because I'll ask for a bite, then another, and another, and eventually he'll have to go order another one. On extra short trips to Detroit, we'll squeeze in a quick hani order at the National Coney at Detroit Metro Airport.
On my first trip to Detroit, Nick and I were driving to meet some friends downtown at a bar, and he insisted on swinging by a Lebanese restaurant at a nondescript strip mall to get me some kibbeh nayyeh, which he described as "raw lamb meatloaf." He returned with a styrofoam container, and I had my first taste of this dish in the passenger seat while driving up the M-10. I scooped up the tartare, equal parts spiced raw lamb and cracked bulgur wheat mixed to a super fine consistency, and topped with some tabbouleh (this is key). The resulting mouthful is perfectly balanced: the freshness of the soft tender meat, the weight of the bulgur wheat, completed by the acidity of the tabbouleh. I think I ate three quarters of the box before we got to the bar.
Detroit is home to a number of immigrant neighborhoods, including “Mexicantown," and family-owned supermarket La Colmena is the area's hive. Apart from its standard grocery offerings, it features some incredible speciality foods, including a legendary whole goat’s head they purportedly sell Saturday mornings on a first-come, first-serve basis (we have unfortunately never successfully scored one). Every time we’re in town, we’ll drive out to the hive for groceries, but more importantly to grab a few bags of homemade tamales. They come in chicken or cheese, with a big ol’ side of salsa. I like to get a bag of each—one for midnight snacking during our stay, and the other to stash in my carry-on to take back home.
You may have only heard about Faygo through Detroit hip-hop group, the Insane Clown Posse, who like to bless their fans in a special communion of the soda pop during their concerts (and when I say bless, I mean full-on, head-to-toe blasts of syrupy soda). Founded by the Feigenson brothers in the early 1900s, Faygo is a soda company that still operates out of Detroit. My favorite flavor by far is the "Rock & Rye," named after a cocktail featuring rye whiskey, rock candy, and bitters. It's a special kind of soda I wish I had grown up with: Think cream cola, slightly more bitter than sweet in flavor, but still super sugary and fizzy. Perfect with those tamales I got earlier.
Sister Pie is a young, female–owned and operated business that sells seasonal pies featuring local Michigan produce, which is high-quality and plentiful. Their menu rotates often and usually has a few quirky flavors like Cardamom Tahini Squash and Sweet Corn Nectarine Crumble, the latter of which my mother-in-law casually picked up for dessert this past summer. We all wondered aloud how on earth a pie like that must taste, and had to wait until the dishes from dinner were put away before cutting into it. It tasted like cornbread and stone fruit had a baby, kind of salty and even better the next morning with coffee. A couple in-season favorites right now are the Cranberry Crumble and Salted Maple, both of which can be found in their cookbook.
Paczkis (pronounced “poonch-ski”; don’t go around asking for a “pat-ski”) are so beloved in Detroit that they have their own holiday on Fat Tuesday, where people all over the city will stand in ridiculous lines to get their last fix of butter-sugar-fat before Lent. That's because these jelly-filled doughnuts were engineered to be the most butter-laden, sugar-loaded, fried-in-all-the-fat goodies possible. At New Palace Bakery—located in Hamtramck, a predominately Polish neighborhood throughout the 20th century—these goodies are available year-round for that butter-sugar-fat fix I’m always looking for.
What's your favorite thing to eat in Detroit? Let us know in the comments below.